God’s Cross: a reading from Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard lived in the twelfth century, and is considered one of the greatest thinkers of his time. Abelard produced great work as a teacher, a church historian, and a theologian. Among his most well known articles is a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions, to which he posited arguments along the lines of yes, or no.  So for example one question is:

  1. Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?

Abelard’s teachings were controversial. The Church challenged him because Abelard used reason to reconcile the inconsistencies of doctrine.  He would have made a wonder Episcoplian.

Here is one of his stories, which portrays his view of what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

“From somewhere near them in the woods a cry rose, a thin cry, of such intolerable anguish that Abelard turned dizzy on his feet, and caught at the wall of the huts. ‘It’s a child’ voice,’ he said.

Thibault had gone outside. The Cry came again. ‘A rabbit,’ said Thibault. He listened. ‘It’ll be in a trap. Hugh told me he was putting them down.’

‘O God,’ Abelard muttered. ‘Let it die quickly.’

But the cry came yet again. He plunged through a thicket of hornbeam. ‘Watch out,’ said Thibault, thrusting past him. ‘The trap might take the hand off you.’

The rabbit stopped shrieking when the stooped over it, either from exhaustion, or in some last extremity of fear. Thibault held the teeth of the trap apart, and Abelard gathered up the little creature in his hands. It lay for a moment breathing quickly, then in some blind recognition of the kindness that had met it at the last, the small head thrust and nestled against his arm, and it died.

It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard’s heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. ‘Thibault,’ he said, ‘do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?’

Thibault nodded.
‘I know,’ he said, “Only, I think God is in it too.’

Abelard look sharply.
‘In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?’

Thibault nodded.
‘Then why doesn’t he stop it?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Thibault. ‘Unless it’s like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,’ he stroked the limp body, ‘is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.’

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. ‘Thibault, do you mean Calvary?’

Thibault shook his head. ‘That was only a piece of it – the piece that we say- in time. Like that.’ He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. ‘That dark ring there, it foes hp and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.’

Abelard looked at him, the blunt nose and the wide mouth, the honest troubled eyes. He could have knelt before him.

‘Then, Thibault,’ he said slowly, ‘you think that all of this,’ he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, ‘all the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?’

‘God’s cross,’ said Thibault, ‘And it goes one.’

(Found in Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings compiled by Robert Atwell, translation by Helen Wadell, written in 1933)

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About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
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2 Responses to God’s Cross: a reading from Peter Abelard

  1. Clearly I must try to find some writing of Abelards. This was wonderful. Thanks so much Terri for posting it.

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